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People gather at Lincoln Park in Washington, DC, on April 7.
Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

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The case for reopening America’s parks

There’s little reason to believe passing outdoor encounters pose a major risk of spreading the coronavirus.

In the week or so after my 5-year-old’s Washington, DC, school closed, my wife or I used to take him sometimes to the playground across the street so he could ride his scooter to burn some energy. He was prohibited from using the climbing equipment, but with appropriate disinfecting, I would let him swing on the swings. Anytime we went, we would see other kids scooting, biking, running, or swinging.

We’d also see adults using the perimeter of the soccer field as a running track, while on the interior some parents kicked or tossed a ball around with a child. The benches were mostly used by grown-ups as ersatz gym benches for a variety of workouts.

We could also from time to time see people behaving irresponsibly at the park — either parents allowing small children to play on the climbing structure, which was riskier than I was willing to do, or else younger kids or teens playing basketball, which involves too much physical contact to follow social distancing guidelines. In response to this kind of activity, the mayor ordered the parks and playgrounds run by the city government to close and worked with the federal government to close some but not all of the numerous federally managed parks in DC.

As an emergency measure, these kinds of broad closures may be the best the US could do. But as America settles in for a long haul of social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, it doesn’t seem to be well-grounded in the evidence. Transmission of the virus from runners or people walking around outside looks to be unlikely and possibly even less likely in the warmer days to come.

The risk that people recreating outdoors will behave irresponsibly is a problem, but the country doesn’t have systems in place to prevent irresponsible indoor behavior, so it’s not clear why closing outdoor spaces would exacerbate the situation. The US also isn’t trying to prevent people from going outside at all, so closing parks may make other spaces like sidewalks or the random parking lot where my kid now does his scootering more crowded.

What’s more, while much about the science of the SARS-Cov-2 virus and Covid-19 is somewhat uncertain, the science about the benefits of outdoor activity is clear, and it makes sense to lean more heavily on the more certain aspects of our knowledge.

It’s time to give people more freedom outside.

Outdoor coronavirus transmission appears to be rare

The well-known examples of large-scale coronavirus spread have involved big groups of people being cooped up in confined indoor spaces — whether that’s cruise ships, nursing homes, prisons, or Singaporean migrant worker housing. The other major known vector of transmission relates to prolonged direct contact with sick people. Lots of health care workers get infected because they are taking care of Covid-19 patients. Lots of households see one family member get sick and then the infection spreads to the rest of the house.

Picking up germs from a chance encounter with a stranger outdoors is theoretically possible, but infectious disease experts consider it unlikely.

None of this is to say that it’s advisable to get together with 27 of your friends in the closest park, sit in a tight circle, and chat unmasked for four hours. The initial concern about basketball games where sweaty, heavily breathing people are shoving and bouncing off each other for an extended period of time seems valid. But to the best of the available knowledge, there is little risk that a person behaving responsibly will become infected via someone briefly passing inside their 6-foot perimeter. And there’s decent evidence from the tuberculosis and flu studies that risky activities are less risky when done outside.

As with most other aspects of this pandemic, unfortunately the knowledge base is not as solid as one might like. And we have to admit it’s possible this could turn out to be wrong and some idiosyncratic features of this virus make it highly prone to outdoor transmission. But the balance of evidence thus far says that’s not the case. Experts caution that it’s still important to maintain 6 feet of physical distance from other people but are broadly supportive of the idea that outdoor spaces are less risky places to be. And we need to weigh the uncertainty of our knowledge about this with the well-established fact that it’s healthy for people to go outside and move around.

More than 1,000 park and public health organizations have signed a letter supporting outdoor recreation with appropriate safeguards during the pandemic.

Outdoor activity is healthy

You have probably heard that it’s healthier to go take a walk in a park than to sit on your couch watching television.

I am not at all an outdoorsy person and rarely take this advice. It is, however, pretty well-supported. Indeed, not only is exercise healthy in general, but it appears to boost immune system function. In normal circumstances, most people have sufficient vitamin D levels, but they are boosted by spending time outside and may aid in immune functioning.

As Zeynep Tufekci writes in the Atlantic, going outside can also mitigate some of the psychological downsides of prolonged isolation:

Mental health is also a crucial part of the resilience we need to fight this pandemic. Keeping people’s spirits up in the long haul will be important, and exercise and the outdoors are among the strongest antidepressants and mental-health boosters we know of, often equaling or surpassing drugs and/or therapy in clinical trials. Stress has long been known to be a significant suppressor of immunity, and not being able to get some fresh air and enjoy a small change of scenery will surely add to people’s stress. We may well be facing a spike in suicides and violence as individuals and families face significant stress and isolation: The Air Force Academy initially imposed drastic isolation on its cadets due to the coronavirus, but had to reverse course after two tragic suicides. Domestic violence is another real concern: Not having a place to go, even for an hour, may greatly worsen conditions in some households.

None of these effects are so enormous that they’d be worth running major risks of infection over. But as far as we know, the actual risk is low, while the benefits, though modest, are clear. What’s important is that people behave responsibly, which closing parks does not necessarily encourage.

People can break the rules inside, too

The concern about opening parks appears to be driven by viral images shared on social media of occasionally overcrowded beaches, park-adjacent parking lots, or other outdoor venues.

In those cases, it’s correct for officials to disperse crowds or shut down facilities that are being misused.

But photographic evidence of outdoor misbehavior doesn’t mean outdoor settings are unusually prone to rule-breaking, and we don’t know what’s happening inside people’s houses. Even though it’s against most guidelines, the US is not in a practical sense doing anything to stop people from visiting their friends or throwing dinner parties.

People seem to be mostly following the rules due to a healthy mix of self-preservation, concern for others, and shame. If large numbers of people choose to willfully disobey public health guidance, it’s not really clear what the government could do about that. So far, though, it hasn’t been a big problem. And opening up more parks and beaches doesn’t change the fundamental calculus.

One government official expressed concern to me that if the information that outdoor transmission is less likely is publicized, then people will become more likely to meet up with their friends in a low-risk outdoor venue and the net effect will be counterproductive.

But nothing about the relatively low risk of outdoor transmission changes the fact that it’s safer to avoid your friends than to hang out with them. And the odds seem low that the government is going to successfully suppress accurate public health information in order to manipulate people. More fundamentally, closing parks doesn’t make it impossible for people to go outside; it just makes outside spaces more crowded.

Closing public spaces may make crowding worse, not better

As long as people are allowed to go outside, the best way to minimize crowding may be to open up as much space as possible.

Selectively closing perceived overcrowding hot spots — beaches in most jurisdictions, the National Arboretum and Kenilworth Aquatic Garden here in DC — may feel like an effective way to reduce crowding, but it tends to squeeze people into fewer and fewer places.

Governments should make rules and try to enforce them, not close all public spaces. State parks in Maryland, for example, have done a good job of shutting down indoor facilities and play structures while keeping trails and open spaces available for recreation. There’s been a gentle but clear police presence at every state park I’ve visited over the past month, which seemed sufficient to keep the vast majority of people following the rules. Yet even within that framework, Maryland has closed the beach portions of its parks, though all the same considerations should apply.

And what works for state parks and national parks could also broadly work for city parks. Specific unsafe activities can be prohibited without closing down public spaces. The basic coronavirus problem is not going away anytime soon, and we need to find ways to make living with it tolerable.

We need trust to survive

On some level, the outdoors question comes down to officials’ level of trust in the public.

If we let people play tennis, can we count on them to keep their distance and avoid playing doubles? If we let families go for picnics in the park, can we count on them to avoid turning them into play dates? If we let people swim in the ocean or sunbathe on the beach, do we trust them to not go throw wild parties?

The skepticism is somewhat understandable.

From a public communication standpoint, there is something appealing about the unambiguous notion of ordering people to stay home. At the same time, millions of Americans aren’t staying home because they’re working the essential jobs that keep society running. Can we really tell someone who spends all week working in a drugstore or delivering food for a restaurant that we can’t trust him to push his kid on a swing (disinfected with wipes, of course) on the weekend? In a world where some people have huge backyards or vacation getaway houses, does it make sense to tell working-class people they have to spend all summer stuck inside?

Fundamentally, the process of digging out from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic isn't going to work unless we can count on people to be reasonably good about adhering to public health advice. That’s important to do at parks and beaches, but it’s important everywhere. And if people go outside safely, it’s a healthy and sanity-boosting way to spend time that helps make extended quarantine more endurable. It’s time to open up the great outdoors.

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